Thursday, October 7, 2010

MOMA, 11 west 53rd street Abstract Expressionist New York: Through April 25th

MoMA: Abstract Expressionist New York

To use the term "New York abstract expressionist" is a little like saying "southern NASCAR driver", or "tall NBA player."  Virtually all Ab Ex's were New Yorkers at one time or another. The only one I can think of that wasn't was Richard Diebenkorn, who painted out of the California Bay Area.  There might be others, but their names don't exactly jump to mind.   Anyway, it's considered a New York movement, and it's historically what made New York the center of the art world. It's been over 60 years since these artists came to prominence, but I think they're still a little touchy about the whole thing in Europe. The show is all work that's already in MOMA's permanent collection, so if you're a frequent visitor to the museum you've undoubtedly seen a lot of it before, but a lot of the work isn't usually on display, so some at the very least should be new to you. I know there's a lot that I hadn't seen before, and I go there all the time.
It's a big show that covers a big subject and while the bulk of it is on the 4th floor of the museum, it extends down onto the 3rd, and 2nd floors. While Abstract Expressionism is known primarily as a movement of painters, there is a lot of sculpture in the show by artists such as Isamu Noguchi, David Smith, and Herbert Ferber. Refreshingly, there are also a lot of women in the show, like Lee Krasner (of course), Grace Hartigan, the always underrated Joan Mitchell, and the always overrated Helen Frankenthaler. Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois both have great pieces in the show. They are also both sculptors and women, so by including them the curators manage to kill two birds with one stone.
The show starts with some of the early, surrealist inspired, quasi-figurative work that kind of got the ball rolling on the movement by artists like Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and the under appreciated Richard Pousette-Dart. Also, there are a few beautiful pieces by Ad Reinhardt, who's paintings are frequently mistaken as a minimalist. Pollocks "She Wolf"(1943) is the most famous painting in this section, and probably the truest to the surrealist technique of using automatism as a tool to unleashing images from the collective unconscious. Those images would later famously dissolve into pure automatism.   Actually, Pollock was more committed to the ideals of surrealism than most of the surrealists were. He also had the tenacity to take it a lot further than they did. But, they were French and he was a New Yorker, so what do you expect.
Art historical convention breaks the Ab Ex's into two groups; action painters, and color field painters (ignoring the sculptors completely). This show draws attention to how the surrealist roots of this movement created in the artists a fascination with, and an intense search for the sublime. So, I think you could just as easily divide them into two other categories; Ab Ex's that focused on totemic, mythic forms and images, and those that focused on intuitive, painterly abstraction.
In the first category Rothko has to be seen as the leading figure. He's represented by some powerful work in this show, and I have to say that people who can't appreciate him must just lead sad, empty, pathetic lives. Clifford Still is another great "totemic" abstractionist, but is less accessible than Rothko. Barnett Newman painted a couple of iconic images, but to me his paintings are far too self consciously important. Usually when I look at his work I want to say "relax, it's just a painting". Other artists that fit into this category would be Robert Motherwell who I have to admit I never really understood, Adolph Gottlieb, and Bradley Walker Tomlin. Both of whom I also don't really get.
Some of those who would fit into the "painterly intuition" category would be Pollock (obviously), deKooning, Mitchell, Krasner, and Hans Hoffman. Personally I prefer this second group, but some of these artists seem to have pursued more lyrical goals than tragic, or sublime ones. Pollock seemed to be able to do both, keeping a foot in each world. In some ways the same could be said for Philip Guston, who after becoming one of the leading abstract expressionists turned his back on the movement, and in some ways helped to destroy it. If Charles Burchfield is Americas Van Gogh, Guston is our Picasso.


  1. I guess you liked the show. Joel Perl at the New Republic like some of the worked but over all panned. He thought that how the curators hung the show was uninspired. Here is his review.

  2. I like Jed Perl a lot (you know you wrote Joel Perl right), and I guess a lot of what he's saying is true. It could have been, and maybe should have been more thematic. But, I was responding more to the art, and not the curating. I started with the 4th floor, and worked my way down. I may have been losing some steam by the time I got down to the 2nd and 3rd, so they didn't seem all that exceptional to me. I don't know, maybe I'll go back.

  3. Hi Matt, my mistake on the name. I read his review several days earlier. Before, I never knew who he was. Yeah, I could see that you were responding to the art rather than how it was curated. It is just interesting to see how you both came away with it. Regardless, it is a large show with a lot to see and to digest. Cheers!